Thomas Carlyle, 'The Dismal Science', and the Contemporary Political Economy of Slavery

By Groenewegen, Peter | History of Economics Review, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Thomas Carlyle, 'The Dismal Science', and the Contemporary Political Economy of Slavery


Groenewegen, Peter, History of Economics Review


Thomas Carlyle's description of political economy as the 'dismal science' is well known. Several of the classical history of economic thought texts quote him on the subject and, occasionally, mention some of his other pronouncements on economics, particularly his critical outlook on laissez faire. Examples include Cossa (1893, p. 106), Gide and Rist (1949, p. 542) and Schumpeter (1959, pp. 409-11). Bonar (1894, pp. 227-8) mentioned the matter in his article on Carlyle for Palgrave's Dictionary of Political Economy. Subsequently, he (Bonar 1922, pp. 230n, 248n) and Robbins's influential Nature and Significance of Economic Science (1935, p. 26) drew attention to Carlyle's other 'endearing' epithet for political economy, 'pig philosophy' which, strictly speaking, Carlyle only applied to the contemporary utilitarian version of political economy. In addition, Carlyle sometimes features in the history of economics as a somewhat crucial influence on the social and economic thought of John Stuart Mill (1) or, more generally, as one of a number of 'romantic', 'mystic', mid-nineteenth century critics of political economy, in which case he then tends to be bracketed with John Ruskin.

Few of these references source Carlyle's description of political economy as the 'dismal science' to its origins in an article on 'The Nigger Question' (2). This had first been published in Fraser's Magazine (December 1849) and then, four years later, appeared as a separate pamphlet (1853). Subsequently, it was frequently reprinted as part of his Latter-day Pamphlets (1858) and Miscellaneous Essays (1888), the version (Carlyle 1849) used here. This essay was written, it may be noted, with the 'dismal impressions' of a visit to Ireland in the summer of 1849 fresh in his mind, and as the first fruit of his 'world weariness' induced by his experiences there, in combination with 'domestic sorrows' and a general discontent with public affairs (Garnett 1895, p. 129). As background to this piece was the abolition of slavery in the French colonies enacted in 1848, following the similar measure for British colonies legislated in England in 1834, the year which also saw the enactment of the new 'poor law'. It also came not long after the abolition of serfdom in Austria (which likewise occurred in 1848) and the many factory reforms enacted in England and France during the 1840s. The last included 1842 legislation prohibiting child and women labour in underground mines, the regulation of their hours of labour more generally in 1844 legislation and the introduction of a ten-hour day for women and children in the textile industry in 1848. By the end of 1849, and also during 1853, the institution of slavery continued as a going concern in many other parts of the world. The cotton plantations of the southern states of the American Republic are a well-known example; as are the plantations of the former (or continuing) Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch colonies in central and southern America and the East Indies, and, more generally, in Africa. Despite its abolition by Britain and France, slavery continued to thrive for some time as a nineteenth-century mode of colonial production, as did the slave trade in Africa which was so frequently its prerequisite. 'The nigger question', to use Carlyle's title, remained a highly topical issue in social and political debate for some time.

In order to place Carlyle's epithet of 'dismal science' clearly within its original context, the first part of this paper summarises the essentials of Carlyle's argument on the 'nigger question' and looks at his views on economics in a wider context as well. The second part of the paper develops some links between contemporary political economy and slavery, by examining aspects of the economic literature on slavery, especially from the middle of the nineteenth century. A final section then presents some conclusions and reflects on the appropriateness of Carlyle's use of the term, 'dismal science', in the light of this background.

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